Belgium by train - part two
In Part 1 I told how I and Mrs. Smith had travelled in luxury and style from Keith overnight to London on the Caledonian Sleeper and on to Brussels on the Eurostar. From there we took a smooth train to the charming town of Dinant, which straddles the mighty Meuse River. Leaving Dinant with the feeling that we could happily spend some more days there, we took the train once again (and by the way, train fares in Belgium are very much cheaper than in the UK) to Namur.
From Namur we seamlessly crossed to a long train that took us to Liège (or Luik as they call it in the Dutch speaking part of Belgium). The station here has been rebuilt into a strikingly modern design of white arches that has to be seen to be believed. We waited for our connecting train – this slid in to the long platform, but it was only 2 coaches, a wee electric train built around 1970. It was clean and tidy, a little basic, but this took us off to our next connection at Pepinster.
The countryside was rural, wooded and hilly, so we kept popping in and out of short tunnels following a river, stopping at wee stations and it was quite beautiful. Pepinster is a large “V” shaped station in the middle of nowhere. One of those stations that once was important. We crossed to the other arm of the “V” and another wee two coach train came in of the same type. But this one is far more important. It starts at Aachen in Germany, it is an international service! Going even more slowly through more bonny woods and small valleys, we reached Spa.
The first impression was not encouraging. The station has seen better days. The station road is worse, the pavement desperately needs resurfacing. We negotiated this and shortly came to the main street – and what a delight. The town of Spa gave its name to all the spas around the world. There are wonderful ornate buildings everywhere, and some grand modern hotels. Spa is certainly not living on its past glory; it is vibrant and relevant today.
Our hotel was the L’Auberge, on one side of the triangular Place du Monument (world war memorial). It was just a ten minute stroll from the station, and is situated right in the heart of Spa. You enter through the bar / dining area, and the quaint lift takes you to superb rooms. The food (and beer) is excellent, and we will certainly stay there again.
The tourist office is just up the street in a palace of a building that houses the spring of Peter the Great of Russia! The staff are very helpful, and we went on a walking tour of the town organised by them with the guide Gaëtan Plein. He speaks four languages, has a great sense of humour, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of Spa and the region. Before we set off he led us through to the spring which trickles Spa water down an ornate sculpture, marked with Peter the Great memorabilia. We tried the water – not as bad as most sulphurous waters, and “guaranteed” to do you good.
Walking around the town – which is not too large so it is easy to do, we encountered a great many plaques on the walls of buildings commemorating the famous people who stayed there at some time. It would fill the rest of this article if I were to list them all. This shows just how popular Spa is.
The British came here of course, one spring up on the hill and associated luxury hotel is the Balmoral. There is also the large Hotel Britannique. This was built in 1854 especially for us Brits. In July 1883 it was here that the sovereigns of the Netherland and Belgium came to finally “bury the hatchet” 50 years after the Belgians broke away and gained their independence. From March to November 1918 it was the supreme HQ of the German army, and from October 1944 to March 1945 the supreme HQ of the American army. It ceased to be a hotel in 1958 and today is a boy’s hostel.
The British connection is everywhere, in the Anglican park, the Boulevard des Anglais, and they credit us with taking the word “Spa” back to the UK to be used for similar mineral springs here, and spreading it throughout the world.
Everywhere we walked there was something to catch the eye. There is the grand Casino, fronted by ornate gardens, which are a feature of Spa and give it a light pleasant feel. Next to it is the “Bibliothèque” a grand public library, and then the “Ancient Thermes” – the old spring and baths, awaiting restoration. Crossing the road we were dodging the “tourist train”. This contraption looks like a cannibalised old bus with a trailer, roughly made to look like a steam engine. This “train” charges around the town making it easy to get about. Facing us was a cut-out of a man in evening dress playing the violin, attached to the wall of the Hotel Cardinal. This is Georges Krins, (1889 – 1912) a native of Spa. He was the lead violinist on the RMS Titanic. This was some achievement for a young man of just 23, if you remember, the orchestra that he lead played on as the Titanic sunk.
Strolling onwards you pass the base station of the funicular that takes you up to the springs and hotels up on top of the hill. Spa nestles in its wooded valley and seems a world away from the bustle of city life. We now came to the “Park of 7 hours” (I never did discover why it is called this). There are two ornate pavilions connected by a wrought iron “Galerie”. This was built so that you could still have somewhere to walk even if it is raining. Here there is a mini golf, fountain, monuments and so on and also the town Museum and Horse Museum. There is also a Museum of Washing, as in laundry. Mrs. Smith said that she has quite enough of this at home so wasn’t interested in visiting it!
We returned past a block of three beautifully proportioned buildings that today are used by the judiciary and police. The central one has an ornate coat of arms over the central doorway. It has rampant lions and the wording “Villa Royale Marie Henriette”. She was the wife of Belgian King Leopold ll, and lived here from 1895 to 1902. It is her stables that today are the Museum of Horses, and real live horses are available during the summer season.
Probably the biggest event of the year in Spa is the “Francochamps” – the races for cars, motorbikes, and the Belgian Formula 1 Grand Prix in August. There are races and events from February through to October. This wonderful world class course at Spa brings many people to the town and much prestige too.
For a small town (the resident population is around 10,500 people) there is an awful lot going on all the year round. There are concerts, plays, walking, hiking, sky diving, and round about the town are more springs, small towns, pedal boats on a lake, caving, the “Francofolies”, over 100 concerts of pop, slam, hiphop, and so on, over 4 days in July, art galleries and exhibitions, the list is endless.
It is as if you have all the attractions of a big city in a small town. This gives it a unique atmosphere, friendly, human scale, and convenient to get around. All of this is in a town which has not been spoiled by steel and glass supermarkets or distasteful modern functional architecture.
Once again it was with regret that we had to leave so soon that we trundled back along the dodgy pavement to the station and caught the little two car train for its international journey to Germany. We fussily bustled through the wooded little valleys, stopping again at the small stations for locals to alight and join us, before sprinting smartly and importantly into the huge station of Verviers. Here we left our little train and connected across the platform into a sleek inter city train that would whisk us to Brussels.
In Brussels you can just cross the Midi station to the Eurostar to London, but we had a few things to do in Brussels first. We took the metro to our hotel, the Thon EU. It is in the EU quarter, towering canyons of steel and glass with EU flags and symbols and self-important EU workers of all EU countries, and others, in their business suits, hurrying thither and yon. The hotel is superb. It is huge (over 400 bedrooms) so forms a hollow square of a building and in the centre is a sheltered space where they grow their own herbs and have bee hives, and they use their own honey in some of their recipes. The chef even makes his own jams (pure fruit, no additives or preservatives) and I recommend it, and their selection of whiskies is astounding. They have to keep them locked into a large glass case; some of them are very rare indeed.
What we did in Brussels will have to wait for another article. We did eventually come home, and after such a busy itinerary it was so good to be back in the Caledonian Sleeper having the smoked salmon and scrambled eggs breakfast cruising down from Dalwhinnie to Inverness. It really is the only way to travel!